top of page

Alcohol Use After a Brain Injury

I’ve never been what I would consider to be a heavy drinker, but I must admit that I have always enjoyed sharing a few drinks with family and friends. With the upcoming holidays just around the corner, social gatherings will no doubt be occurring more frequently. For some, that translates in an increased likelihood of sharing a drink as well. Although my Weird Wonderful Brain can’t handle social gatherings really well anymore, I still make an effort to join in whenever I can. Apart from the usual brain injury challenges linked to social gatherings, there is another aspect that I need to consider...alcohol or alcohol free? 

It is an accepted custom in our society to have social drinks and a part of me really enjoys getting in on the bandwagon too. However, since encephalitis and brain injury, I have avoided consuming any amount of alcohol. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, I feel spaced out most of the time so it tends to make things like following a conversation or simply keeping my balance much harder. On top of the heighten cognitive deficits, I have also noticed that on the rare occasions where I have consumed 2-3 drinks (which is still not a huge amount), the resulting physical effects have been pretty drastic. Alcohol seems to trigger my heart rate to increase considerably, I get loads of ectopic heart beats, I can feel extremely nauseous, I sweat profusely, it can trigger massive headaches and my tummy seems to get all tangled up.

I found that the cognitive and physical effects of alcohol post brain injury last long after my last drink and will often carry on throughout the night...stopping Sandman from stealing me away for some very well deserved and necessary sleep. Once you add the lack of sleep on top of a social event and a few drinks, it doesn’t take too long for the brain to spiral out of control.

Effects of alcohol on the brain

That led me into conducting a bit of research about the  “effects of alcohol on the brain”. From past personal experience, most of us are aware that alcohol, even if consumed at a recreational level, can alter our senses, bodily functions and cognitive functioning. Although they are likely to be temporary effects, alcohol can indeed slow our reaction time, alter or thinking and decision making process, trigger a loss of inhibition, induce blurry vision, impair our memory, slur our speech, muck up our balance, coordination and mobility and when consumed in excess, alcohol can even trigger black outs and cause us to be sick. From that list of ways in which a brain is affected by alcohol, I can already identify several cross-overs with how my Weird Wonderful Brain has been affected by the acquired brain injury. Some of those effects are present in spite of me being alcohol free so I was keen to dig further to better understand how an injured brain is likely to be further impacted. 

Effects of alcohol on an injured brain

2 persons doing a cheer. One with a beer and the other with a non-alcoholic drink

There are bits and pieces of information out there on brain injury and alcohol use, but to my surprise, there wasn’t a huge amount.  The sources that I found had a theme in common which is, because alcohol affects the central nervous system, people with a brain injury “are likely to experience even greater problems with alertness, memory, problem-solving, and controlling their behaviour and emotions.”[1]

I eventually landed on the MSKTC website which provides a very interesting fact sheet in regards to brain injury and alcohol use.  The following facts [2] were taken directly from their website and were the ones that resonated the most with me:

  • Alcohol slows down or stops brain injury recovery.

  • Not drinking is one way to give the brain the best chance to heal.

  • People's lives often continue to improve many years after brain injury. Not drinking will increase the chance of improvement.

  • Not drinking can reduce the risk of developing seizures.

  • Drinking alcohol puts survivors at an even higher risk of having a second brain injury. This may be because both brain injury and alcohol can affect coordination and balance.

  • Alcohol may affect brain injury survivors more than it did before their injury.

  • Alcohol magnifies some of the cognitive problems caused by brain injury.

Alcohol and depression

There was also very useful information relating to alcohol and depression.  It is proven that people suffering from a brain injury are already at a greater risk of developing a form of mental illness such as depression. Alcohol being a known depressant, it could also cause or worsen symptoms of depression. Therefore, keeping alcohol out of the equation could improve your chances of keeping depression at bay or at least improve your chances of better managing it. 

Alcohol and medication

Post brain injury, you may also need to be aware of how alcohol can affect your current medication. In some cases, it can decrease or stop their effectiveness and in others, it may increase their effectiveness and potential side effects. It is therefore another aspect that needs to be weighted very carefully when making decisions regarding alcohol consumption post brain injury.

Impact of alcohol on the cardiovascular system

During my research, I unfortunately didn’t find much relating to how the consumption of alcohol by a brain injury survivor can impact the heart rate. However, once I took the words brain injury out of the equation,  I found many ways in which alcohol can affect the cardiovascular system e.g: increased heart rate, high blood pressure, weakened heart muscle and irregular heartbeat.[3] Although they aren’t symptoms that I experienced prior to my acquired brain injury, they are very much present now and it demonstrates clearly how my body's tolerance to alcohol has been impacted...even if consumed at a very low level. I can only assume that the changes in my brain pathways following the encephalitis & ABI must have tweaked how the heart electrical system works...making me more prone to temporary arrhythmia perhaps? All I know is that it is an uneasy feeling to experience. I feel my heart pounding and racing in my chest and I can even hear my heart pulsing in my ears as if music was playing in the makes me feel absolutely terrible.

Learnings about the effects of alcohol for a brain injury survivor

From all my readings, it simply seems that a person living with a brain injury is generally more sensitive to alcohol. We generally have less tolerance to alcohol and are at greater risk of experiencing many of its undesirable side effects even if consumed in a much smaller quantity. The payback is also likely to last much longer compared to the average person given all the other factors that brain injury survivors have to take into consideration.

Since encephalitis and my acquired brain injury, I’ve had many friends ask questions regarding alcohol consumption and brain injury which I’m always more than happy to answer.  However, I’ve also heard the rare but insensitive comment “Oh aren’t you going to have a drink with us to celebrate such and such” if drinking alcohol was a way to show someone that you care, as if it was a must to have a great time. Sometimes I wish that people would remember that part taking in a social event already comes with additional challenges for me and that my brain is foggy enough in the best of times. However, I generally brush those comments off pretty easily...I've realised that my decision not to drink perhaps makes them uncomfortable or perhaps makes them rethink the reasons why they have chosen to have an alcoholic drink. Deep down, I know that the people who truly matter to me don’t care whether I share an alcoholic drink with them or not. The ones who truly care will simply appreciate me being there and that’s good enough for me.

The reality is that post brain injury, there are no level of alcohol consumption considered to be safe and given how my body reacts when I attempt the occasional 2-3 glasses of wine, I have made the very personal decision to avoid going there. Every now and again I do miss the social aspect of it, I miss the frivolity of the old me. Like most things post encephalitis and brain injury, it is a balancing act I suppose so whenever I chose to have a drink, I prefer to keep to the one drink or to go for an alcohol free version as there are more and more tasty options available. The impact of doing otherwise outweighs the positive so I feel like it’s just not worth it for me. I’m not judgmental of those who carry on, I actually used to be one of those person, but I hope that this blog helps bring some perspective or helps you gain a better understanding of the ramifications of alcohol use post brain injury.

[1]: Synapse

[2]: MSKTC

Want to read more about Brain and Alcohol, check out this blog from @theneuropt

Brain Drinks - Alcohol: What happens to your brain when you drink a lot of alcohol? What happens to your brain when you drink a little alcohol? What areas of your brain are more vulnerable to alcohol ?

Recent Posts

See All

2 Kommentare

Mark Martin
Mark Martin
13. Sept. 2020

You did some nice research and discovery! I had wondered about this very subject. I was raised to not drink at all, for religious reasons mainly, but life-experiences reinforced my beliefs that drinking is just generally not handled well by a lot of people so I just chose to keep avoiding it. My wife likes an occasionalwine cooler and when we married 4 yrs ago, I was about to try having a drink with her, but then E struck. 3 yrs post-E, I was starting to consider it again, just to try to relax, but I read something similar to your findings and so I decided against taking the chance!! The thought of doing ANYTHING that might bring on E again terrifies me!…

Gefällt mir
Veronique Theberge
Veronique Theberge
17. Dez. 2022
Antwort an

Thanks Mark, I appreciate you sharing a snippet of your experience and it’s always great to hear feedback 💕

Gefällt mir
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Pinterest Social Icon
bottom of page